ACLU of Washington Challenges Dismissal of Lesbian Air Force Officer

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
April 12, 2006 12:00 am

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SEATTLE, WA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today challenged the dismissal of a decorated Major and flight nurse in the U.S. Air Force Reserves for engaging in “homosexual conduct.” The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, seeks to forbid Major Margaret Witt’s discharge.

“Major Margaret Witt has been an exemplary member of the military with a distinguished record of service. To discharge her simply because of her sexual orientation is unfair and does not make our military stronger,” said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.

The lawsuit seeks to stop the Air Force from discharging Major Witt or from otherwise hampering her military career. The ACLU of Washington argues that Witt’s discharge would violate her right to engage in private activities without government interference. The military has provided no evidence that her sexual orientation or conduct has caused a problem in the performance of her military duties. To the contrary, the ACLU of Washington is submitting declarations from military colleagues that her forced absence is harmful to her unit’s morale.

Major Witt has served in the Air Force for 18 years. She is a flight nurse and operating room nurse assigned to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Washington. Major Witt served in the Persian Gulf and in 1993 was selected to be the “poster child” for the Air Force Nurse Corps recruitment flyer. In 2003, Major Witt was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal for her action in saving the life of a Department of Defense employee who had collapsed aboard a government-chartered flight from Bahrain.

“I joined the Air Force because I wanted to serve my country. I have loved being in the military – my fellow airmen have been my family. I am proud of my career and want to continue doing my job,” said Major Witt. “Wounded people never asked me about my sexual orientation. They were just glad to see me there.”

From 1997 to 2003, Major Witt was in a committed relationship with a civilian woman. In the summer of 2004, according to ACLU legal papers, Major Witt was notified that the Air Force had begun an investigation into an allegation that she had engaged in “homosexual conduct.” In November 2004, Major Witt was placed on unpaid leave and told she could no longer participate in any military duties pending formal separation proceedings. In March 2006, the Air Force informed Major Witt that she was being administratively discharged on grounds of “homosexual conduct.”

The Air Force Reserves currently have a critical shortage of flight nurses. As of April 4, 2006, the Air Force Reserves had 121 vacancies for flight nurses at the rank of Major.

Witt graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma with a degree in Nursing in 1986 and joined the Air Force the next year. She was promoted to Major in 1999, and as of early 2004 was the Standards and Evaluations Flight Commander, a role giving her management responsibility for over 200 flight nurses and medical technicians. In that capacity, she was named “Officer of the Quarter” for Spring 2003.

ACLU of Washington cooperating attorney James Lobsenz of Carney Badley Spellman is handling the case. In a previous ACLU case, Lobsenz represented Army Sgt. Perry Watkins, who challenged his dismissal from the military for being gay. In 1989, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that, as a matter of fairness, the Army could not discharge Watkins.

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